The conflict between Israel and Hamas has been dominating the headlines since Israel’s strike at Hamas at the very end of 2008. It is not my intention in this article to add to the intense debate about the rights and wrongs of either Israeli or Hamas actions, tempting as that may be for one who lectures part time on the Arab Israeli conflict at the University of Sydney. I will analyze the situation from a tourism perspective. eTN has covered the political and ethical issues from both sides and there is little to add to that debate.
In 2008, Israel, the Palestinian Territories (more specifically, the West Bank), Jordan and Egypt all enjoyed record year for tourism arrivals.
Although the final figures are not yet in it is safe to assume (based on Jan-Nov 2008 statistics) that Israel attracted an all time record 2008 tourism influx of 3 million international visitors, the PA areas about 1.5 million, Jordan about 2.5 million and Egypt in excess of 13 million. One of the key reasons that these four destinations enjoyed such strong tourism inflows was because there was a general perception that they all experienced relative stability during 2008. One may note the distinction between stability and peace. While intermittent missile attacks from Gaza during 2008 (until December) represented a clear hazard to those parts of Israel within range, they had little impact on the overall security situation of those regions within Israel mainly visited by tourists. Visits to Bethlehem and Jericho reached all time highs although the issues of ease of access. Length and stay and per capita spend remained a problem for Palestinian tourism officials.
Jordan enjoyed a record year aided by the fact that Royal Jordanian Airlines became a part of the One World Group and that cross border travel between Israel and Jordan grew massively during 2008 as many tour operators resumed Israel-Jordan combination tours. Egypt enjoyed massive tourism growth during 2008 from all sources.
However, the picture for 2009 is far less optimistic, at least for the short to medium term. Haifa University’s Dr. Yoel Mansfeld, who is one of the academic pioneers of tourism crisis management research, wrote some years ago that surges of conflict and terrorism had a negative impact on tourism to Israel and the immediate region and in his analysis peaks and troughs in international tourism arrivals to Israel were heavily influenced by the perceived security environment.
In 2008, the interplay of tourism between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories and, to a lesser extent, Egypt was positively influenced by the “relatively benign” security environment of that year and the fact that for much of 2008, these destinations were relatively affordable for a large portion of their source markets.
Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority has good reason to celebrate the record influx of tourists during the Christmas period of late December 2008, part of it resulting from pent up demand which had been restrained during the years of the Intifada from late 2000-2005. Then, Gaza erupted.
Now Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt face a challenging 2009 on two fronts. The eruption in Gaza has created a whole range of perceptual and security concerns about the safety of travelling to Israel and these concerns will also apply (albeit to a different extent) to the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt.
The Gaza situation could also have an effect on combination tours involving all four destinations. To add further intensity to the challenges the global economic downturn will mean that the four destinations will switch from being the highly affordable destinations they were in mid 2008 to relatively expensive destinations for many of their source markets. The fact that many operators and hoteliers in the four destinations have significantly increased their prices in recent months has exacerbated this problem A recession usually means that travel does not stop but tourists tends to gravitate to destinations closer to home or those which are very affordable. Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the PA which have enjoyed positive growth from the discretionary travel market will find that their longer haul markets may look elsewhere for a carefree high value holiday on both security and economic grounds.
The duration of the Gaza conflict will be a major determining factor in terms of tourism recovery. After Israel’s conflict with Hizbollah on its frontier with Lebanon in July-August 2006, Israel’s tourism bounced back within six months. If a mutually acceptable cessation of the fighting can be quickly achieved between Israel and Hamas, tourists may quickly forget the horror of the past two weeks even if the respective belligerents may never do so.
However, I suspect that the intensity of this conflict will not dissipate quickly. Tourism officials in Israel, Jordan, the PA and Egypt should realize that 2009 is going to be a challenging year for all of them and their top priorities are to address the perceptual negatives which will arise from this conflict for all destination and also address the economic challenges their destinations will certainly be facing this year.